IS YOUR MARRIAGE INVISIBLE? Same-Sex Marriage and the 2010 Census

In spring, same-sex marriage supporters celebrated recent wins in Iowa, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire after the Proposition 8 letdown in California.

 

As the movement for civil rights progresses, Heather Tirado Gilligan details a new problem. As it stands now, the 2010 census will discount same-sex marriages. Ignoring same-sex marriages does not allow an accurate picture of America. Surprisingly, data shows Mississippi as having the largest number of same-sex couples with children, and registered same-sex couples live in just about every county in the U.S. Gilligan argues how ignoring the demography of LGBTs continues stereotypes of the population as exclusively white, urban, male, and wealthy. Gilligan’s good news is the Census Bureau is responsive to public pressure.

 

Same-sex relationships remain the most contentious social issue in the United States, despite four decades of work by activists and scholars to change laws and attitudes that condemn queer people to second-class status in the U.S. The vicious struggle over same-sex marriage in California last year is but one example of the irrational homophobia that continues to dominate public discussions of LGBT rights.

 

LBGT people remain a go-to divisive issue in American politics and culture, researchers suggest, in part because of the lack of data available about how queer people really live their lives. In the absence of concrete data, misconceptions about gays and lesbians flourish, while the impact of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity remains unexamined.

 

“I think people don’t realize how little data we have on the GLBT population. There’s not a single nationally routinely conducted survey that asks sexual orientation or gender identity,” explains Gary Gates Ph.D., a demographer and senior research fellow at the Williams Institute.

 

Gates is at the forefront of an effort to push the Census Bureau to count same-sex married couples in the 2010 census. Same-sex marriage is legal in five states, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa Vermont and most recently Maine. California’s same-sex marriage law, in effect from May 2008 to November 2008, resulted in about 18,000 same-sex marriages. The California Supreme Court decided to uphold those marriages.

 

Citing the Federal Defense of Marriage Act the Census Bureau has decided not to release counts of same-sex married couples in the next census. Census takers will record the people who indicate they are in a same-sex marriage, as they are instructed not to edit the responses of people they survey. However, in a move shockingly at odds with the ethos of the agency, after results are recorded and submitted the census bureau will change the responses of same-sex married couples and count these couples as living together unmarried.

 

The census bureau will thus “intentionally release inaccurate data,” Gates says, adding that the decision “goes against the core purpose and mission of the agency.”

 

“It’s an official government hiding of the relationships of GLBT people,” he explains. “That has very profound ramifications.”

 

 

The consequences of this decision are particularly clear in light of the concrete data that does exist on the pervasiveness of homophobia in the United States. Pollsters at Gallop have been asking Americans about their views on hot-button values issues for decades, and began detailed polling on gays and lesbians almost 40 years ago, in 1970. “Homosexuality emerges as the most divisive of 16 major social and cultural issues,” according to Gallop’s 2008 poll. Last year, more Americans agreed about abortion and doctor-assisted suicide than gay rights.

 

Americans’ views have remained surprisingly stable in some respects over the years. In the 1970s, for example, 43 percent of respondents agreed “homosexual sex should be legal.” As of their 2008 poll, 57 percent agreed that gay sex should be legal. That’s a difference of 14 percent, and not insignificant; yet it seems like a startlingly small change after 40 years of work for gay rights.

 

A key revision to the last census form gave researchers a glimpse at the kind of information they were missing. The survey allowed people to indicate that they lived together as part of a same-sex couple, and subsequent analysis of that data conducted at the Williams Institute shattered one stereotype about gay life after another.

 

 

For example, researchers found that the largest number of same-sex couples with children live in Mississippi, and that 99.3 percent of counties in the United States have households headed by same-sex couples. Most of these couples, explains Gates, “don’t live in places that are known to be gay friendly or have gay enclaves.”

“The Census has been invaluable at showing LGBT people of color in a wide variety of demographics looking very different from their white counterparts,” says Gates. “They are two to three times more likely to have children. They’re much more likely to be economically disadvantaged.”

Such information challenges the stereotypical image of gay people as white, male, and urban, and was only available because the huge sample of the census allowed same-sex households to be subdivided by race and class as well as geography.

 

“On a typical survey of a few hundred responses,” Gates explains, “we probably don’t have enough data to draw those kinds of conclusions.”

 

Demographers refer to census data as the “gold standard” because its scope, accuracy and legitimacy are virtually impossible to replicate absent the resources of the government agency—more reasons to view the decision of the Bureau to discount the accurate responses of same-sex married couples with dismay.

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Academics working on gay and lesbian issues have difficulty collecting accurate data, which they must often cobble together from smaller sets and disparate sources. To further complicate matters, researchers working with such data are often perceived to be supportive of the LGBT community, and their data may be criticized as biased or suspect. They find themselves viewed as “activists doing data collection,” explains Robert-Jay Green, Ph.D., of the Rockway Institute. “We hear these kinds of criticisms all the time,” he adds.

 

“We have lots of information about how...married people look different from their unmarried counterparts in heterosexual relationships,” says Gates, such as the economic and social effects of marriage. The census would allow researchers to see if same-sex couples have similar benefits.

 

Convincing the court of this difference was a lynchpin in the ruling in favor of marriage in California. “It was crucial to the Supreme Court’s decision that California’s registered domestic partnership status was separate and inferior to marriage,” explains Jenny Pizer, Marriage Project Director at Lambda Legal and co-counsel in the California Supreme Court case.

The passage of Prop 8 in California brings a heightened tension to the issue of counting same-sex marriages in the census. Essentially, argues Gates, the California Supreme Court and the Census Bureau are asking the same question: “Should we unmarry people?”

 

“It smacks of the government not recognizing the way that gay people form families,” Gates says.

A host of questions about the impact of discrimination on LGBT life will remain unanswered until the federal government begins asking survey respondents to answer questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

“Do we know whether LGBT employers are the first to be fired and the last to be hired? Do we know if they are experiencing more or less job layoffs as a result of the recession?,” Green asks rhetorically, reflecting on recent unemployment numbers released by the federal government. “We don’t, and we might actually be able to know that if questions [about sexual orientation and gender identity] were asked.”

 

A recent study of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the policy banning gays from serving openly in the military, highlights the profound policy implications of collecting solid data. Unfriendly Fire, by Nathanial Frank, Ph.D., a senior researcher at the Palm Institute weaves together data, interviews with the creators of DADT, and narratives from LGBT service people in an argument compelling enough to serve as the final nail in the misbegotten policy.

 

“In no case has any research ever found that gay service impairs the military,” Frank explains, “but people repeated this assertion so often and so forcefully that it took on the force of truth.”

As Unfriendly Fire suggests, the irrationality that guides current policy and views on LGBT lives is so pervasive, it can only be shattered by irrefutable logic and hard facts—the exact kind of information the census provides.

 

“Research—aggregated data about the real lives of real people—helps people to understand the true costs of discrimination in American life, as well as the true benefits of equal treatment,” Frank explains.

 

And the argument for using DOMA to deny the existence of legal marriages and keep valuable information from the hands of researchers doesn’t hold up, says Gates. “I think it’s very possible for the administration to say, ‘This does not rise to the level of the recognition of same-sex couples. This is simply an issue of accurately reporting data.’”

 

The Obama administration will take up this issue, Gates says, once leadership is established at the Census Bureau. No changes to the census form need to be made to reflect same-sex marriages, he explains, so there is plenty of time for the Obama administration to change Census Bureau policy.

Contacting the White House and urging them to count same-sex married couples may help the Obama administration come down of behalf of an accurate census count, and a significant victory for LGBT rights.

 

Heather Tirado Gilligan is a writer based in San Francisco.  She covers LGBT civil rights issues for local and national publications.  To read more of her recent work, visit heathertgilligan.wordpress.com.


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written by Natalie Cherot, August 18, 2009
Conducive publish this article back in June, but since our publication there has been good news. The Census will now count same sex marriages.

Natalie Cherot
Editor-in-Chief
Conducive
Conducivemag.com

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